Micromanaging Mothers

The Screen for “Baby Connect” taken from the New York Times Article “Devoting Attention to a Child and a Phone, All at Once”

My electronic calender is open on my computer screen. Every glance toward its multi colored blocks of carefully scheduled hours sends a rush of adrenaline and the desire to twist hair between my fingers (for those of you who don’t know me very well, I am a chronic hair-puller in times of stress and concentration.) There is a to-do list creeping up the side of that neat and organized window. My heart beats a little faster as I dare to scroll through it.

This is the world we live in. A world of sprawling lists and intricately blocked time. To deviate from the schedule is slightly terrifying. Falling behind is unacceptable. I look at my red, green, blue, orange, purple, and pink blocks of time and I worry about my future. I worry about how the obsession with micromanaging my life will translate to my work life, my marriage, and my future parenting skills. I have tried to avoid my culture’s concept of “time poverty”–attempting to slow down and realize the things that truly matter. I have tried to invest meaningful time and energy into the relationships in my life, and attempted to balance academic work with the rest of my life. I have tried to blend the “real world” and the world of “college.” And yet, on days like this I feel like I have failed. Reading a recent article in the New York Times, I realize that the conflict I face is not one I face alone.

In a world of smart phones and e-mail excess, the ability to plan has gotten out of control. Of course, there are both pros and cons to our technological advances and the societal shifts they have created. The new iPhone application “Baby Care” is a perfect example of this. “There’s an app for that” has become a household slogan. In a country where we have to make laws to stop people from driving (and even crossing the street) while eyes are glued to hand held screens, the presence of electronic applications used to organize and fill time has bridged the virtual realm with reality. We text almost as much as we talk, and it is getting increasingly more difficult to find a “phone free” space. Discussed in the April 27th NY Times article “Devoting Attention to a Child and a Phone, All at Once” by Bob Tedeschi, “Baby Connect” is an innovative application designed to reconcile our American culture’s addiction to technology and our guilt for the time it potentially takes away from our children.

We’ve all seen parents and babysitters in parks tapping away with lightning quick thumbs on miniscule keypads as toddlers play and scream “look at me!” We shake our heads in disgust as we lament the loss of parent-child connection and days when “play” didn’t involve pixels or screens. However, parents in parks using the “baby care” app on sleek smart phones likely won’t feel this same sense of guilt. Receiving these disproving looks from strangers, they might explain that the application they are frantically working with is actually used “to track their child’s health and emotional welfare and stay on schedule with day care or play dates”(Tedeschi). It is a tool to record data like lengths of naps, number of diaper changes, feeding schedules, and customized milestones (i.e. first major temper tantrum, first steps, first lost tooth.) A similar application, “Red Rover” is the master play date organizer. Before your child reaches the age of 2, he or she too can have a calender filled with multicolored labeled blocks on a tiny screen. Recommendations are even made for hot spot play areas in your local neighborhood.

I read about these innovative and overwhelming applications and I think of Dr. Holt. After studying him early this semester in my Child Rearing Across Cultures independent study, I have a feeling he would jump up and down at the news of these hyper-organized tools. Holt was a man who believed in bland food and strict scheduling for children. He was an expert countless mothers turned to. He encouraged them to raise their children almost as experiments–monitoring their food intake and sleep schedule in order to adjust it to levels of perfection. After moving through the era of Dr. Spock (“trust yourself! You are naturally a great parent!” and the most recent parenting phenomenon Amy Chua (the Tiger Mom,) I wonder if we are headed back into the parenting direction of the super scheduled Dr. Holt. Parenting cycles in trends, and the presence of applications like Baby Care and Red Rover makes me think that I live in a generation of future micromanaging mothers. Though I admit the ability to snap a picture of a “milestone moment” with an ever-present phone and title it with a clever caption and date is pretty appealing, and that careful monitoring of children is important when it comes to medical concerns and socialization, I am determined to resist the current trend of over-involved and oppressive parenting when it comes to the lives of my potential future children. I do not want to be the woman on the park bench with a fully stocked diaper bag between her knees and a smart phone constantly in her grasp.

This week I had the opportunity to read about several different cultural approaches to raising children. In Anthropology and Child Development: A Cross-Cultural Reader Edited by Robert A. LeVine and Rebecca S. New, I read articles spanning from the issue of why African children are so hard to test, to the identity crises of Utku eskimo children, the nature of play in Italian perspective, child and sibling caregiving, and altruistic and egoistic behavior in children across cultures. Each of these articles shed light on the fact that there is no one “right way” to raise a child–despite our own culture’s attempts to develop the perfect formula. In many ways, the micromanaged way that we approach parenting may actually be detrimental. One example of this can be seen in the study of altrustic and egoistic behavior of children in six different cultures. Ranked on traits of support vs. attention seeking over the course of several months in diverse groups of children in 6 countries, this study from the 1960s by John and Beatrice Whiting found that complex societies (like our own) place a high value on egoistic behavior in order to “maintain a system of open and achievable occupation statuses” (Whiting, 277). In these societies, children score high for egoism, and low for altruism–often eventually resulting in what Whiting called “Displaced Altruism.” Raised to compete with siblings, friend and neighbors, citizens in complex societies feel guilty in their lack of altruistic experiences and attempt to compensate for this guilt with experiences of “displaced altruism” like helping the “poor, ignorant, and culturally deprived” (277).

In a sense it is positive that we have the capability and conscience to participate in displaced altruism, but it is also alarming that we feel we have so much to “make up” for. In other societies that are more kin based and value the extended family, children are often given the responsibility to care for younger siblings and participate in household tasks. These experiences foster altruism, and create a more connected community. In America, we foster isolation and individualism, and may lose a sense of obligation to others as children. Our industrial society does not offer children a place to contribute to the welfare of the family as is true in other “simpler” societies. Is this something we need to do? The Whitings suggest that this is the case. Though the study took place more than 50 years ago, these researchers were already alluding to the necessity for a major shift in the education system and mentality of parenting. They suggest attaching day care to community primary schools and making infant care part of curriculum for students as young as 7 and 8 years old. They take the successful experiences and practices of diverse cultures and suggest that we use them to inform our own. They encourage that we let our children learn from each other rather than cordoning them off into highly monitored bubbles. Reading these recommendations, I think of the success I’ve seen in my own experience tutoring at Greenvale Elementary. I think of the strides my second graders make as they sit together during reading time and talk about the books they’ve just read. I watch them help one another at computer stations and skip off together to play on the playground. I listen to them animatedly talk about their younger brothers and sisters, and wave to them in the hallways. Though I am often pessimistic about American culture, I do not believe that altruism is dead. However, I do believe (as the Whiting study points out) that we need to make altruistic behavior more of a focus in our school system.

Thinking about this restructuring of primary schools in particular, I think of the research on the KIPP program, Waldorf schools, and Montessori schools I’ve been doing over the past week. Each of these innovative and unique programs connects the American mantra of individualism to the altruistic idea that students should learn from one another. For example, children at Montessori schools are given three hours of individual work time each day to dedicate to individual projects of their choice.   They then present to one another and make an effort to learn from each other’s experiences and ideas. The classrooms are also designed to include up to three age levels of children–embodying the notion that older children learn responsibility through their care of younger children, and younger children learn skills from older kids.

This is only one example of what the future of education and parenting has to offer. It is only one aspect of hundreds that we can learn from and utilize from other cultures. In a country that is so quickly developing technology to make our lives “easier” and create “progress,” perhaps we need to pay more attention to tradition and simplicity. Maybe our kids can learn more and be healthier by merely helping out around the house rather than being managed by an iPhone app. Instead of always looking forward, to those pre-planned hours and months, perhaps we should take the time to analyze the world around us and what came before.

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One Response to Micromanaging Mothers

  1. Pingback: III. Testing: Authentic Assessment | growingupinamerica

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